A free life of obedience

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Reverend Martin Johnson
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost—2 July 2017

Genesis 22.1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6.12-23; Matthew 10.40-42

Letters to the Editor. Dear Sir, news of the "seismic shift away from religion" (based on the 2017 census) is alarming. This means that nearly a third of our population believes there is no foundation for ethics and morality. Choice of behaviour in all contexts then becomes arbitrary. The correspondent goes on to give a reason why such a shift has occurred, he concludes: The result? A more selfish, more violent, more confused society.

Paul is not the easiest of the New Testament writers and clearly Romans, his great theological treatise, is the most difficult to grasp. In today's reading we find Paul at his very best—or worst! In fact, I read recently that a sentence in verse 16 of Chapter 6 is one of the most convoluted he ever wrote, that is saying something! What I thought we should do this morning is have a look at this reading from Romans and try and decipher what Paul is saying.

What we should understand first is that Paul is describing a situation very common in his day, that of slavery. In New Testament times the slave was literally the property of someone else. The slave has no rights of movement or travel; a slave can only travel with the master's licence. A slave cannot marry without the master's permission and slaves were routinely tortured; it was assumed that no slave would tell the truth unless forced. Slaves could be used for whatever purpose their master wished and killed with impunity. They might have to share in any punishment meted out against their master which could include crucifixion. They could be freed, if a slave could buy his way out of service, but it was rare. He or she may be bought or sold. What I am trying to stress is that the slave was a chattel something to be owned, they owed complete, total obedience to whoever owned them.

So the image Paul is trying to set up is that of a slave transferring from one master to another. Following the transfer the slave's situation is far better but he is still under obedience to a master, there is never a time when obedience is not required. The two masters are 'sin' and 'righteousness' and Paul personifies them. The former master was obeyed whether the slave liked it or not, the new master is obeyed willingly—from the heart. Paul apologies for using this slavery analogy. I'm sorry, he says, but because of your natural limitations, it's all I can do.

He then goes on to describe the outcome of this change of master. The old way of slavery led to impurity and lawlessness, obedience to the new master will lead to sanctification. Righteousness leads to life, sin to death. Ultimately Paul tells these new converts that the old life of selfishness—the basis of all sin, is replaced by a new life in which obedience is given freely and this has ramifications for their lives 'in the Body' those baptised 'in Christ.'

For Paul, being baptised into the Body was this transference from one master to another, from that moment on whatever you did was linked with being a member of a body. This is thinking echoed by our reading from the end of chapter 10 of Matthew which we heard this morning. This chapter begins with Jesus naming the twelve and then instructing them about what discipleship entails. It culminates in the words: 'Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.' This and the passage about giving 'even a cup of cold water' help us to understand what a particularly Christian ethic is all about, it is incarnationally driven. What we do, we do to Christ and we do in Christ. A Christian ethic then is all about obedience to the one into whom we have been grafted.

I have often wondered about the situation that our correspondent complains about in the Letters to the Editor this week. I know people, indeed I have close friends who would have written 'no religion' on their census forms. They were not exposed to religious thought as youngsters, they are not anti-religion, they are just not religious. But their ethics are to be admired, imitated even, their social conscience is broad, they think carefully about what they do in light of others and the environment. But there must be more; ethics is always more than what we do, it is primarily who we are and this is where Christian ethics provide that foundation which is in danger of being lost.

In this chapter 10 of Matthew's gospel we were confronted with some difficult words last week: Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Just a sample of the great demands that discipleship makes. Jesus is urging his followers not to be distracted, to know the freedom that comes with self-knowledge—knowing to whom you belong and to what you are called. This it seems is the mark of the saints their lack of distraction from their calling. Today more and more people are distracted by issues of identity, belonging, relationship, authority. This it seems, in part, is the issue we face in contemporary society and culture.

We as Christians make our moral and ethical and decisions in much the same way as anybody else. The difference is that we are engaged in a larger reality. The reality that is God. Our way, our calling is to show the character of the God to whom we belong, to whom we have been, in Paul's idiom, enslaved. Our calling too is to show the character of the community into which we have been grafted. Our ethic is to show what God's selfless attention to us looks like in the everyday, the cup of cold water. This is where perhaps our ethical foundation will be lacking in the future, time will tell. If the story of Abraham and the near sacrifice of Isaac, as difficult as it is, tells us anything, it is that obedience lies at the heart of who we are. It is desperately unfashionable and we will need to find new ways to present it to a cynical, distracted world; but it is our calling to speak into a world that is increasingly unable to find what it is and to whom to give obedience.

Amen.


Children's talk : God's family

Reverend Martin Johnson

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Good morning to you, young folk! I have a question that has been sent to me …

Hi, Mum and Dad are starting to talk about getting me baptised and I was wondering why is this done when we are babies and not bigger children? If we were baptised when we are older wouldn't we understand it better?

Well, let me ask you a question: when you were born did you 'understand' things? No, you didn't, did you; but when you were born you became a member of a family. You didn't 'understand' that did you, no; but as you grew you began to understand what it was to live as a member of a family, how to share, how to look after each other, how to speak to each other, how to live together and we keep learning these things right through our lives as we grow and our families grow. So, when you are baptised you become a member of a family, God's family. You don't understand it, no. But as you grow you slowly learn, you learn what it is to be a member of this very large family in much the same way. This family is much more than just Mum, Dad, brothers and sisters, it's even bigger than grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles.

This family begun with a couple called Abraham and Sarah. Now Abraham was the first person in the Bible to believe in God and so he is often referred to as the Father of faith. Abraham becomes the father of a large family, his son was Isaac, we heard about him in the reading this morning, Isaac's son was called Jacob and he had twelve sons and his twelve sons each had a family or a tribe. Jacob changes his name to Israel and so the Hebrew people as they were called became known as the Israelites that simply means the people of God. So, the Old Testament is all about these people, this great family—how they believed in God, or tried to, and how they lived together, how they sometimes they got things right and sometimes got things wrong. They believed they lived as God's people in the land God had promised to them. The descendants of these people are living today in that land, and it's still called Israel. They are the Jewish people.

Now a second question came my way:

What type of bush did the sheep got stuck in in the story of Jesus and the Lost Sheep?

This is an interesting question. In the New Testament, when the lost sheep wandered away from the flock, Jesus the Good Shepherd went and found it and brought it back to be safe with the family. But the Bible doesn't say that the sheep got caught in a bush! The sheep in the bush was in the story we heard this morning about Abraham and Isaac his son. Now Abraham believed in God and he believed that God wanted him to give him his little boy Isaac, this is hard for us to understand today. But God didn't want Isaac at all, he just wanted to know how much Abraham loved him, did he love him so much that he would even give him Isaac. So, Abraham took a sheep instead it was caught in a bush and he gave it to God and no doubt they had a great feast. What sort of bush was it? I expect it was a really hard, dry, prickly bush like you get in the desert!

This talk of sheep reminds us that Jesus is known as the Good Shepherd and you will hear that during our service and there he is, over there (pointing to icon). Now although Jesus was Jewish, he came to say some very different things about being one of the chosen people, one of Abraham's family. He came to tell us a different way of being family. He said, "I am the Good Shepherd" and I have come to look after the family but this family is going to get much larger.

So first he gathered around him twelve followers. Straightaway we can see Jesus was trying to follow the same numbers of the family of Abraham. Then he taught these twelve all about God, he taught them the Lord's Prayer, he said you are all children of God you are all one family. More and more gathered and he told these twelve to go out and tell everyone about God, go to Israel first he said and tell them about this new way of understanding God as Father. Then go out beyond Israel and say that God is Father of all, we are all one family. That is us! So, we Christians are one family, a very big family, we look after each other. But we are different from Abraham because we understand God differently, because of Jesus.

If we want to show that we love God and believe in God we do so by following Jesus. And if we follow Jesus we look after each other. He said this morning that even small things are really important … like a cup of cold water. Imagine that in the desert, when you are really thirsty. So today we will be decorating mugs (here's mine) to remind us that we are to help everyone in this great big family of ours even just a cup of cold water! We remember that Jesus said, "whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes God."

So, Abraham began a family that followed God. That family got larger and larger and then God then sent Jesus to say that this family is going to get a whole lot bigger—and it's still growing today as more and more folk are baptised.

And, yes, we all try to care for each other.

And finally, the last question …

I was wondering how big is the Ark. Mum doesn't know these answers!

137m long × 22.9m wide × 13.7m high … that's how big the ark is!

Let's go and decorate our mugs!